What you need to know:
- The problem of limited readership is a common one throughout Africa. The truism that literature without readers is doomed needs to be repeated here.
- The problem has become even bigger in the age of electronic media which has turned many people away from the traditional book.
- Of course to some degree, literature can also be transmitted through such media. However, the book will remain important for a long time to come.
- The problem facing Kiswahili literature is that powerful forces push it to become too school-oriented.
Despite numerous stumbling blocks, Kiswahili literature has made tremendous progress in the last two decades. Every year, organisations of scholars and lovers of Kiswahili have held conferences where pertinent issues in Kiswahili language and literature have been discussed. Every two years, the proceedings of such conferences have been peer-reviewed, polished and published.
The latest of these publications is Ukuzaji wa Kiswahili (2014) edited by Nyachae Michira, Iribe Mwangi and Mwenda Mbatiah and published by Focus.
The book examines how various agents, institutions and individuals have contributed to the development of Kiswahili.
Some of the articles discuss the role of the media in developing and promoting the language and at the same time contaminating it by, for instance, popularising Sheng, especially through commercials. Other contributors focus on the role of creative writers, Kiswahili institutes, departments at universities and publishers.
On the whole, this book, like others before it, makes a valuable contribution to scholarship in Kiswahili. The challenge that books of this nature face is in their distribution. Bookshops, which favour school books for obvious reasons, are reluctant to stock such a book.
In the end, only a small number of readers are likely to benefit from the valuable knowledge it contains. Since its publication, only Text Book Centre in Nairobi has been selling it. To overcome the challenge of disseminating their research findings, scholars might have to resort to the use of electronic media and move away from total dependence on the book.
LAST TWO DECADES
In the last two decades, book publishers such as Jomo Kenyatta Foundation, East African Educational Publishers, Focus Publications, Longhorn, Moran and Spotlight Publishers have produced high-quality new novels, plays and collections of short stories.
These works are by both experienced and new writers. In the 1960s and 1970s works by Tanzanian writers such as Shaaban Robert, MS Abdulla, MS Mohamed, AS Mohamed, Euphrase Kezilahabi, Ebrahim Hussein, Emmanuel Mbogo, Penina Muhando, Shafi Adam and FHH Katalambulla used to dominate Kenyan publishing houses.
Since the 1980s, things have completely changed. A new generation of Kenyan writers has come up to continue from where John Ndeti Somba, Jay Kitsao, Katama Mkangi, Hassan Mwalimu Mbega and Chacha Nyaigotti Chacha left. Works by this new generation now dominate the Kiswahili literary scene.
What are the challenges facing the new generation of Kiswahili writers? First of all, the age-old problem of publishers who do not honour the contracts they sign with writers persists. There are publishers who routinely frustrate writers when it comes to payment of royalties.
While the chief motivation for writing is never money, the right of artists to earn royalties from their works must be respected. Publishers who fail to pay authors dig their own graves because the demise of writers will inevitably lead to their downfall.
THE OTHER PROBLEM
The other problem is that some publishers have Kiswahili editors who have very limited capacity to judge good manuscripts and recommend their publication. In the 90s, we used to have very competent and dedicated Kiswahili editors such as Simon Sossion of Longman (now Longhorn), Elma Getao of Oxford University Press, Kakai Karani of Jomo Kenyatta Foundation, Kiarie Kamau of East African Educational Publishers and Kariuki Wangai of Phoenix Publishers. Some of these editors got promoted to senior positions, thus leaving the work of evaluating manuscripts to their juniors.
Others left the big publishing companies to start their own firms. A few have also retired. Most of the Kiswahili editors who took over are mostly young people who completed their university education a few years ago. It will take them many years to reach the level we were in the nineties.
The problem of limited readership is a common one throughout Africa. The truism that literature without readers is doomed needs to be repeated here. The problem has become even bigger in the age of electronic media which has turned many people away from the traditional book. Of course to some degree, literature can also be transmitted through such media. However, the book will remain important for a long time to come. The problem facing Kiswahili literature is that powerful forces push it to become too school-oriented.
Publishers keen to earn profits by meeting the demands of the school market push writers to conform. The result is literature that does not appeal to readers beyond the classroom. There is need for publishers to balance between the school market and the market outside the school.
Prof Mbatiah is a writer and scholar based at the University of Nairobi.